The decision to release and burn five tanker cars of vinyl chloride and other chemicals at the site of a 38-car derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, just over three weeks ago unleashed a gigantic cloud full of particulates that enveloped surrounding neighborhoods and farms in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
It is well documented that burning chlorinated chemicals like vinyl chloride will generate dioxins. “Dioxin” is the name given to a group of persistent, very toxic chemicals that share similar chemical structures. The most toxic form of dioxin is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD. TCDD is more commonly recognized as the toxic contaminant found in Agent Orange and at Love Canal, New York and Times Beach, Missouri, both sites of two of the most tragic environmental catastrophes in US history.
Dioxin is not deliberately manufactured. It is the unintended byproduct of industrial processes that use or burn chlorine. It is also produced when chemicals such as vinyl chloride are burned such as occurred in East Palestine.
The organization I work for, the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, has worked with communities affected by dioxins for over 40 years. We have seen the impact of exposure to dioxins in communities from Love Canal and Times Beach to Pensacola, Florida. And now, we are asking, why isn’t EPA testing for dioxins in East Palestine, Ohio? Are dioxins present in the soil downwind from the site of the accident?
At a townhall meeting in East Palestine last week, people talked about what it was like when the black cloud reached their property. One person who lived 15 miles away described burned ash material from the fire that settled on her property. Another who lived 3 miles away described how the black cloud completely smothered his property. Repeatedly people asked: was it safe for my kids to play in the yard? Is it safe to grow a garden? What is going to happen to my farm animals?
These are important questions that deserve to be answered. Today there are no clear answers. Why? Because no one has done any testing for dioxins anywhere in East Palestine. No one. And, it seems, that the EPA is uninterested in testing for dioxins, behaving as though dioxin is no big deal.
This makes no sense. Testing for dioxin, a highly toxic substance, should have been one of the first things to look for, especially in the air once the decision was made to burn the vinyl chloride. There is no question that dioxins were formed in the vinyl chloride fire. They would have formed on the particulate matter – the black soot – in the cloud that was so clearly visible at the time of the burn. Now, the question is how much is in the soil where people live in and around East Palestine. Without testing, no one will know and the people who live there will remain in the dark, uncertain about their fate.
This is important because of the adverse health effects associated with exposure to dioxins. Exposure to dioxins can cause cancer, reproductive damage, developmental problems, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, infertility in adults, impairment of the immune system and skin lesions.
The EPA is very familiar with dioxins. For more than 25 years, the agency evaluated and assessed the risks posed by exposure to dioxins. They published multiple draft reports on the health effects caused by exposure to dioxins. They published an inventory of dioxin sources and devoted an enormous amount of time to studying dioxins. The agency knows this chemical very well.
So why is EPA unwilling to test for dioxins in the soil? My guess is because they know they will find it. And if they find it, they’ll have to address the many questions people are asking. It will not be easy to interpret the results of the testing for dioxins in soil, but to avoid testing is irresponsible. The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. Clearly the situation in East Palestine is the place where EPA should follow its mission and do right by the people who live in this town. EPA must test the soil in East Palestine for dioxins.
The people who live there need to know so they can make informed decisions about their future.
Stephen Lester is a toxicologist and the science director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, a project of the People’s Action Institute